I just wanted to share a few observations about the design of Demon's Souls. It's not a game for everyone for sure. Some people just like brutal challenge more than others - nothing right or wrong or better or worse, it's just entertainment, folks. But, if you loved it like I did, here are some characteristics of its design that I think made it successful.
NUMERO UNO: Consistency. There was very little about Demon's Souls that was random. After going through an area dozens of times, I became very well attuned to where enemies would walk, when they would attack, how they would attack, and exactly how many stabs of my spear it would take to defeat them. And almost every single time, with few exceptions, it was all extremely predictable as long as I played my part the same way as well. In computer science terms, this makes it "deterministic" as opposed to "randomized." Most games introduce randomness in their combat systems and AI code in order to make things less predictable. But, keeping things predictable can be good because it makes it something that you can learn. If things behaved differently each time, the learning process would become more frustrating and lengthy. To put it more plainly, it's a tough target to hit, but at least it's not a moving target. I think this is what a lot of people are getting at when they say that Souls is "fair."
NUMERO TWO: Variety. Very rarely did I find myself going "ugh not this again" in Demon's Souls. I was usually going, "WTF IS THIS?" or "Hmm..interesting...how am I gonna tackle this?" This is in stark contrast with many modern games that basically recycle the same combat scenarios over and over one after another (Mass Effect 2, lookin' at you..). This took away a lot of the pain in backtracking, because I was at least backtracking through interesting and diverse sections of the levels. Sure, after a while, they no longer become challenging (and that progression is rewarding in itself), but you still had to employ different tactics through each section which meant that you could never just switch your brain off. At a higher level, each of the five worlds had their own mix of enemies and dangers and their own unique moods. Very rarely did they just recycle the same model with a different skin. Thematically and mechanically, Souls excelled in spicing up your experience and keeping things interesting.
NUMERO TRES: Skill-based Progression. Yes, there were RPG elements and I did do some grinding for Souls in order to upgrade my weapons and stuff, but the vast majority of the progression in the game came from the improvement of my own skills and understanding of the game. Most obviously, you learn the traps in the levels and how to avoid them. You learn how to deal with the various enemies and what attack patterns they use. You learn the optimal way to go through levels so backtracking is less tedious. You learn new ways of using your weapons and items. The fantastic combat mechanics are obviously far more skill-based than what you'd find in most RPGs. Sure, there were times when grinding for souls allowed me to make some upgrades that allowed me to get past certain bosses, but compared to most RPGs, the ratio of skill to time-based progression is much larger. Again, I rarely felt like I was mindlessly grinding. Even when I was "grinding" I was able to find particularly efficient ways of getting souls.
NUMERO QUATTRO: This Wiki. This is not exactly a part of the game's design, but it was absolutely vital to my enjoyment of the game. Demon's Souls is not a game that tells you much about itself, and discovering all that stuff on my own would've probably turned me off to the game. But, as with any good challenging game, a helpful community quickly grew around it, providing me with a means to short-cut all that trial and error. There was tons of information and loads of advice that got me through the experience. It really gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling and kind of restores your faith in humanity. Now, is it poor game design by From Software that I had to resort to the wiki? A year ago, I might have said "yes", but hey, most people have internet connections these days and know how to use the googles, so why not rely on it as designers? The guys who made Terraria sure as heck do, and they're doing great. Encouraging your players to do this is probably a good idea, and Demon's Souls did that with the message system (which in itself wasn't very helpful).
So, as an aspiring game designer, if I were to ever design a game like Demon's Souls, those are probably the things I would keep in mind the most as lessons learned. Anything that I missed?
Not necessarily all games that came out in 2011, just the ones that I played the past year and would like to share with ya'll fine folks!
To the Moon - This game turned me into a pathetic, weeping little baby. It's a completely story-driven game, and the gameplay is minimal at best (don't let the first "battle" fool you - this is NOT a JRPG or much of anything really). And you know what? That's OK, because the story is touching and thoroughly enjoyable and quite unique among video games. It's a very human story told in the style of JRPGs, so if you enjoyed the cutscenes in games like Final Fantasy on the SNES, with pixelated sprites demonstrating a surprising amount of emotional dexterity, you'll feel right at home here. Again, this is no JRPG and it's barely an adventure game. What it is, however, is damn good.
Sequence (Google for "sequence iridium") - This indie gem takes rhythm game mechanics and mixes them with the RPG tropes of battles, character stat building, and loot. And yes, it's a genre-soup that is quite delectable to even the most jaded of gamers. The battle gameplay is frenetic, satisfying, and totally groovy. With a soundtrack that includes tracks from Ron Jenkees (of Youtube fame) and a well-written, off-beat story, Iridium games has put together one of the most unique and enjoyable games this year. It's probably dirt cheap on Steam right now, so do yourself a favor and just check it out.
VVVVVV - I don't typically enjoy skill-based platformers, and I never beat any of the Super Mario Bros games. So when I first saw VVVVVV about a year ago, I resisted. But finally, I decided to give it a shot again. After some initial frustration, it soon had me well hooked. Sure, there are screens where you'll die dozens of times to get your timing right, but the checkpoints are generous, those screens are usually quite clever and interesting, and it's not that brutal as far as platformers go. It ain't no Super Meat Boy, for sure. The most brutal parts ("Doing things the hard way" comes to mind) are optional. The soundtrack is also, for lack of better words, FUCKING AWESOME. The story is minimal but quite lovable, and I never got sick of the characters smiling and frowning. And man - just flipping through huge spaces and exploring the map never got old. Tons of fun!
Crysis 2 - This game probably isn't getting much GOTY love, and that's a shame because it's great shooter. Unlike MW3/BF3, its levels are pretty open-ended. You're basically thrown into some large arena and are given complete freedom as to how to approach it. The nanosuit stuff also allows you to jump higher and scale the levels vertically, which is pretty unique for FPS games (as far as I know). It's quite satisfying to climb on top of a ledge and take down enemies from above! I hope more FPS games follow suit and offer more dynamic experiences like Crysis 2.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution - In some ways it did surpass the original, and in other ways it regressed. But hey, I still had a blast taking down fools in its Bladerunner-esque world, and I am absolutely looking forward to the next one. Let's hope they fix some of the gameplay issues, add in more variety to the world, and continue to champion the immersive shooter. Keep up the good work, Eidos Montreal!
Portal 2 - I don't think I need to say much about this masterpiece. The puzzles are great, the writing is fantastic (the lemon's rant...instant classic), the voice acting is probably the best the medium has ever seen, and the whole experience is expertly crafted all the way through.
And that's about all the games that come to mind. I hope you all have a great holidays, and happy new year! Next year's is looking great for games as usual - it's a good time to be alive, folks.
You hear a lot about various video game "genres," such as FPS, RTS, action, adventure, action-adventure-FPS-MMO. But we don't hear much discussion about video game "forms". Now, I'm no film major, so I may be misusing some terms here (please correct me in the comments), but here are some "forms" of film I can think of: Music video, commercial, TV show, feature film, news, sports, etc.
Currently, video games mostly cover two of those forms analogously: feature film (AAA titles), and TV show (sort of with smaller releases). Of course, we do have some forms that I can't think of any film analogy for: Pure game-games, like Tetris. But how about articulating some of the other forms that video games can take?
Why is this a useful way to think about video games? Well, ever since the beginning of time, people have debated what games should and should not be. Is story important? How should game play and story interact? And the answer to all this really is: In every way imaginable. Can you imagine if people were to debate how film and music should interact? In a feature film, music typically complements the movie. But in a music video, the film complements the music! Ahhh what freedom they have in film! Why should games be any different? In some games, story complements the gameplay (Portal). In other games, gameplay complements the story (To The Moon, LA Noire). And yet other games are somewhere in between.
So, I think it's time we start forming a vocabulary for this kind of thing. This way, we can better communicate what exactly a particular game is - what "form" is it? If you watch a music video and expect a story, that's really your problem. But if I just tell you, "This is an action game", you don't really know whether or not to expect a solid story or not. This may lead you to regret your purchase! So, how about we start talking about games like this: "To the Moon is a story-driven adventure game." Or, "Uncharted 3 is a story-complemented action-adventure game." To the Moon's sole purpose is to tell you a story with some small interactive bits here and there, so it's "story-driven." Its interaction mechanics are largely about exploration and light puzzle solving, so "adventure" describes that. Uncharted 3 is an action-adventure game - it features cover-based shooting and light platforming. It is "story-complemented" because the story isn't really the point of the game - it's just to make the overall experience more enjoyable. Just as "Requiem for a Dream" wasn't made to showcase Clint Mansell's epic piece, it still made the overall experience more intense. And of course, there's a special art to film scoring, just as there will be a special art to game-story-writing.
If someone just wanted to write a song, they wouldn't go find a movie to write it for. They'd just write the song. But, maybe a movie inspires them to write a song, and then they tailor the song to really fit the movie. And that makes for a cool experience. Or maybe someone writes a song for a movie, and then it's just so good that it can stand on its own in the form of a soundtrack album. I think that's how we should be treating story in games (shit sorry I got off on a tangent): it's just one form of story, and games that have stories are just one form of game. And it's quite the challenging form!
OK sorry I got off a lil tangent there. But I hope this was coherent - off to bed now. G'night.
If you enjoy simple puzzle mechanics that lead to very challenging logic puzzles, then check out Zen Puzzle Garden: http://www.lexaloffle.com/zen.php. The basic mechanics are extremely simple, but you'll be surprised at how many rich and interesting puzzles arise from them. It's a very bare-bones puzzle game, so don't expect any story or anything. But the presentation is very soothing and contemplative and very appropriate to the game. So, strap on your thinking caps and give it a whirl. There's a demo.
Internet people sure spend a lot of time and words talking about how to tell a story in games. They write articles like this http://www.next-gen.biz/opinion/opinion-games-cant-tell-stories, trying to figure out what developers should and should not do when trying to tell a story in a game, or whether they should even try at all!
But I think I've come to realize that all of these high-level discussions are really just side-stepping the real issue: maybe you just didn't like the story the game was telling. It's not how it's told or how much agency the player has or whether or not the player ruins the story or how much "congruence" there is between story and gameplay and all that high-level crap...you just didn't like the damn story! Maybe the setting was boring to you, or you couldn't relate to it, or you just really disliked the voice acting.
I think we've solved story telling in games. There's a myriad of ways to do it, whether it's through cut-scenes or set pieces or radio logs or whatever. And I can confidently say the problem is solved because I've played many games that are quite successful in their story telling with quite different techniques. Portal 1/2 did a fantastic job just building a linear experience around you as a silent protagonist, and there were some brilliant moments where game play meshed with story beautifully. That's one way to do it. "To the Moon" barely had any game play, but I loved the story so much that the experience was thoroughly enjoyable anyway. That's another way to do it, and it's much like the approach taken by old-school adventure games. Uncharted 2 took yet another approach to the problem.
These games all approached the problem differently, but they were all successful because fundamentally, I (and a lot of others) just really enjoyed the story they were telling. Sure, I will say that Portal 1/2 probably had the coolest methods for story-telling, with Uncharted 2 coming in second, and "To the Moon" being the most mundane in its approach. And I do hope developers explore more cool ways to tell stories to give us cool, new experiences!
But if you just want to tell a good story? Fine - do it. There's so many ways to do it in a game, there's really no need to worry about "the right way." Use cutscenes - as long as they're good, I will gladly watch them! People that say "cutscenes are bullshit and anti-game" are just thinking about bad cut-scenes. And yeah, nothing kills a game's flow like a bad cut-scene. But guess what? Some of my favorite memories from great games are their cutscenes. MGS was hokey as hell but still had some great moments, Warcraft 2 had some seriously badass vignettes between missions, and "To the Moon" is pretty much one big cutscene.
Anyway, I'm just seriously tired of people downing video games and story telling and how there's something fundamentally wrong about combining the two.
OK this indie game is really good, innovative, and only $6 so I just wanted to give it some love. Here, check it out: http://store.steampowered.com/app/200910/ I really wish it had a demo, because I think if you played it for about 30 minutes you'd be hooked.
This game is DDR/Guitar Hero mixed with an RPG in a really fresh way. Yes, you're gonna be pressing some keys in time with some music, and if you suck at that you will suck at this game, but there's more to it than hitting the right keys. There's also a great strategic layer to it: There are three separate tracks you can focus on, and you need to strategically decide what track you'll pay attention to. One track is for defending against attacks - if there are keys coming down this track and you don't hit them, you get damaged. Another track is mana - there are no penalties for missing keys here, but you need to hit them to gain mana (which you need to attack). And finally there is the Spell track - everytime you use a spell, which you can do anytime, keys will show up in this track, and you need to hit them in order to actually cast the spell (to attack the enemy, heal yourself, etc.). Outside of this, there are meta-structures such as leveling up and a little bit of crafting, but that's the core of the game.
AND IT'S FUN AS HELL. It also features music by Ronald Jenkees, who is awesome. So please - check out some gameplay videos and if you're intrigued at all, BUY IT!
I don't work for the developers at all, but I'm an aspiring indie game developer, and I like telling people about awesome, innovative indie games. Cheers!